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Orange County public relations professionals forced to pivot during pandemic

Public relations professionals Sydney Alacano, Allison Olmstead, Devyn Copeman and Jane Gillespie.
Public relations professionals, from left, Sydney Alacano, Allison Olmstead, Devyn Copeman and Jane Gillespie, along with Buck, Olmstead’s chocolate lab, are seeing and experiencing the fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic currently affecting their industry.
(Kevin Chang / Staff Photographer)

The word “pivot” is one that has been used a lot to describe how people’s roles have changed during the novel coronavirus pandemic.

Costa Mesa resident Allison Olmstead prefers the word “hustle.” That word perhaps more accurately describes what Olmstead and other public relations professionals have had to do since March.

Olmstead, the CEO and founder of TO Media Co., has several national-level clients and has needed to get creative in finding the best way to serve them.

“You have to hustle,” she said. “For us, getting stories in the press is difficult right now, because everybody’s talking about COVID. It’s been challenging in one way, but at the same time it’s been awesome, because it’s allowed us to be way more creative. We’ve had to take what we do and expand our role. In traditional PR, you would get stories in ‘earned’ media. Now, we’ve added all these different layers to it for our clients, which is why we have copywriters and social media people.”

Olmstead also has become familiar with the word “teamlancing,” which refers to several freelancers with different specialties coming together to help serve a client. A big part of her team has been Irvine resident Jane Gillespie, who specializes in public relations on a more local level in Orange County. They work together to serve Villa Real Estate.

“Normally, we would be pitching for ourselves, but now both of us have been offering and marketing ourselves as a team,” said Olmstead, 47. “You have access to a bigger, broader team if you need other experts, like Christopher Luu with the copywriting for example, or if you need someone to pull together a pitch or a press release. They trust us with the brand, and so they trust us with our team too. We’ve done all of the back-end work to find the right person for them.”

With officials and medical experts telling people to stay at home as much as possible during COVID-19, where do those who don’t have a place to shelter go? It looks as though help is on the way to house the homeless in Orange County.

Luu is a Fountain Valley-based copywriter who is the evening editor for the InStyle website. He also has a job as a digital content manager in the travel industry, but he’s currently furloughed from that position.

He said the partnership with Olmstead has been key as he tries to survive.

“We’ve all had to try to take on more or do things that we normally wouldn’t do before,” Luu said. “I never would have said that I was a copywriter, because when you’re in a school and you’re a journalism person, you say that you’re a journalist. You don’t want to work as a copywriter. But now, it’s just like give me the money. I’ll do anything, as long as I get paid.”

COVID-19 continues to impact Orange County. There were 18 deaths due to the respiratory disease reported Wednesday by the Orange County Health Care Agency, bringing the cumulative death toll to 833.

Also Wednesday, there were 295 positive tests received, which puts the cumulative case count of the coronavirus, including deaths, at 44,507. There were 5,282 new tests reported, and 565,386 tests have been issued to date.

Gillespie has a few shopping mall clients, including the Triangle in Costa Mesa and Kaleidoscope in Mission Viejo. She has worked with Marcie Taylor, who specializes in social media and digital marketing, to help promote stores at both locations.

Jane Gillespie does public relations for the Triangle shopping center, shown here in 2015.
Jane Gillespie does public relations for the Triangle shopping center, shown here in 2015.
(Luke Money)

“In times of a recession or economic uncertainty, a lot of companies tend to cut back on PR or marketing efforts first,” said Gillespie, 53. “That’s one of the first budget items to go, but I think a lot of savvy companies realize this is really the time that they need to keep pushing ahead and elevate or expand on their marketing and PR efforts. We can fill that role, we can be very flexible and we can be really nimble. What’s good about the ‘teamlancing’ concept is the freedom and the flexibility not just for us, but the team that we’re able to create for the client.”

Taylor recently moved to Santa Ana but has done much of her public relations work in Huntington Beach, including as the founder and publisher of SurfCityFamily.com and her work on the annual “Surf City Surf Dog” contest, which she said was recently canceled for 2020.

For many of the restaurants at the Triangle, ever-changing rules regarding dine-in options have made PR professionals even more valuable.

“One of the first things we had to do was coordinate the messaging about being closed,” Taylor said. “From there, we brainstormed with our client, trying to see what we could do when the rules were set out. Usually, when you’re trying to drive people to your mall or restaurant, you would do it with live events … but we had to pivot toward something virtual or take-out. We’ve been working hand in hand with that, and the main way people are now communicating is all digital, so that’s made it more crucial for us to work together with messaging.”

Those coming into public relations from college also are seeing opportunities. Costa Mesa resident Devyn Copeman is an incoming junior at USC who has worked for Olmstead this summer on things like putting together pressbooks and press releases.

Corona del Mar High School graduate Sydney Alacano also recently graduated from University of Colorado Boulder with a degree in public relations.

“It’s nice to know that we have [teamlancing] as an option,” Alacano said. “I’ll be looking for a job, but it’s encouraging to know that I can use this as a little side hustle.”

There’s that hustle word again. Olmstead wouldn’t have it any other way.

“Lately I’ve been working out of the garage with the garage door open,” she said. “I feel like I’m a part of the world, instead of being inside.”

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